According to a study published last month in the scientific journal Current Biology, individuals with anxiety literally perceive the world differently than people without anxiety. These altered perceptions aren’t only visible in people’s behavior — they’re also visible in their brains.
Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and the Jerusalem Mental Health Center and the Hebrew University in Israel trained individuals with anxiety to associate three separate musical tones with one of three outcomes: one tone meant the participant would lose money, another tone meant that the participant would gain money and a third tone meant that nothing would happen. In this task, the participants needed to only listen to the tones and memorize which was positive, which was negative and which was neutral.
After the participants learned the correct meaning behind each of the three tones, the researchers had them perform a task: Listen to one of 15 tones and tell the researchers whether or not they’d heard the tone during training session. Some of these tones were new, whereas other tones were identical to the ones they had heard earlier. If they could successfully identify which tones were new and which tones were old, they were rewarded with money.
Compared to healthy individuals, people with anxiety were worse at distinguishing which of these 15 tones were new and which were used in the previous task. Specifically, they were more likely to mistakenly believe that a new tone was one that they had heard during the training. In other words, they had difficulty telling the difference between emotional stimuli (the ones that predicted monetary gain or loss) and neutral stimuli (tones they had never been heard before). The researchers consider this to be a form of overgeneralization.
“We show that in patients with anxiety, emotional experience induces plasticity in brain circuits that lasts after the experience is over,” said Rony Paz, the co-senior author of the study. “Such plastic changes occur in primary circuits that later mediate the response to new stimuli, resulting in an inability to discriminate between the originally experienced stimulus and a new similar stimulus. Therefore, anxiety patients respond emotionally to such new stimuli as well, resulting in anxiety even in apparently irrelevant new situations. Importantly, they cannot control this, as it is a perceptual inability to discriminate.”
Providing future insights
The researchers also used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to view the brains of people struggling with anxiety. Compared to healthy people, individuals with anxiety had significantly different brain activity in numerous brain regions including the amygdala, an area engaged in fear and emotional processing. These results further support the idea that people with anxiety perceive emotional stimuli differently than people without anxiety.
“The findings might help to explain why some people are more prone to anxiety than others, although the underlying brain plasticity that leads to anxiety isn’t in itself bad,” explained Paz.
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About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.